Online reviews

I rarely read online reviews of things because it seems strange to be swayed by the opinions of anonymous people whom I did not know in the least and who might have their own agendas or even a vested interest in the product. If I do read a review, it is to see if there are some potential problems that I should look into before purchasing the product.

It turns out that my skepticism was not entirely unwarranted. This article says that there quite a few shenanigans being pulled in the online review world, especially when it comes to books, with people offering reviews for sale. One person was even raking in $28,000 a month for posting favorable online reviews for his clients.

Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet.

[Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, whose 2008 research showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars] estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

One of the most prolific of the reviewers for hire said that a lot of the books she got to review were trying to prove creationism. It should not surprise us that godly people working for Jesus are not above this kind of dishonesty. They think that anything goes when you are trying to save souls. It is just another example of the weakness of the creationist case.

Of course, my disparaging of online book reviews may be partly due to sour grapes on my part. Although my latest book God vs. Darwin: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom sold fairly well, it did not receive even a single online review, good or bad, on Amazon. Some people who had read my book told me that they liked it (of course that is what polite people would say to your face) but I felt embarrassed to ask them to write a review. I felt that for a review to be genuine, the thought to do so should come from them spontaneously, unprompted by me.

This is why I would make a lousy businessman.


  1. jamessweet says

    Sifting fact from fiction in online reviews is quite the art form… my wife is excellent at it, but I simply don’t have the patience. Whether it’s the spectre of phoney good reviews, or it’s people who review the seller when they should be reviewing the product or vice-versa (“I give this product 1 star because it was damaged during shipping!” “I give this seller 1 star because the product I bought, while it was exactly what was promised, turned out to not be what I actually wanted!”), or it’s people who are just being complete idiots (“I tried to use this coffee maker to slow-cook a roast, but it didn’t work. TWO STARS!”), I simply find it too exhausting to be able to tease out the valuable information from the noise.

    It can be done, though. My wife has pretty consistently made excellent choices in online purchases, largely from knowing how to “read the tea leaves”, so to speak, in combing through the reviews. It’s very much like Wikipedia, actually, of which I am a staunch defender: If you get a feel for it, you get a spidey sense for when the content can be trusted and for when it is bullshit.

  2. Alverant says

    What I find annoying are reviews for a product that hasn’t been released yet. However most of the time when that happens, something is being released on DVD that the reviewer has already seen on TV or in the theater so they comment on the content. Other people who give 1 star just to try and counter the “This is going to be great! 5 Stars!” reviews are even more so.

    When it comes to books that cover contraversial subjects I see people writing reviews based on how much they agree with the author and not on the content of the book. It could be poorly written but still given 5 stars because the reviewer liked the message. I see this more often coming from conservatives though. Liberals are more likely to say, “I like the message, but it’s a poorly put together book.”

  3. sunny says

    I always look up the one-star reviews. I was skimming the one-star reviews for Daniel Kahneman’s most recent book and one particularly bad review caught my attention. It was so bad that I checked other reviews written by that person. It turned out that he had “reviewed” almost forty books and given every single one of them “one star”.

  4. steve84 says

    Reviews are pretty important when you can select between products that do pretty much the same thing. For example electronics. I also read official tests, but a good indicator is also customers reviews and just looking at what people buy the most.

  5. Rodney Nelson says

    Some time ago I wrote an Amazon review of a history book to which I gave four stars (my objection to the book was it was pitched at the general reader but required indepth knowledge of the particular subject to fully follow the historian’s arguments). The only other review gave one star. That reviewer was a Marxist (well known as such in certain academic circles) who objected to the author making a non-Marxist interpretation of history. This second review said more about the reviewer than about the book or its author.

    It was then that I stopped writing Amazon book reviews.

  6. invivoMark says

    Two-, three-, and four-star reviews are, in my experience, far more informative and reliable than the one- and five-star reviews. They’re also generally unlikely to be fraudulent.

  7. flex says

    Then there are the silly give-aways.

    I was reading the reviews of service from an on-line computer store and while the overall average was about 4 stars, there was strangeness about them.

    There would be a single one-star review, and then fifteen five star reviews two days later all submitted within a couple hours.

    Then six months would go by, and another one star review would show up. And a couple days later another batch of five star reviews within a couple hours.

    It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what was going on.

    The question is, how many people do they fool compared with how many people notice the shenanigans they are playing and decide they cannot be trusted?

  8. left0ver1under says

    Reviews can be of value, but only if you know or are familiar with the person or people doing them. When it comes to online companies, I don’t read the “review” sites or “testimonials” on the company’s own site. I search for complaint sites, sites where people have reported problems with a company, and also sites like Consumerist. The more complaints, the better known the company and the more feedback there is.

    One might say, “Aren’t more complaints a bad thing?” They are *if* the complaints are about things like credit card fraud, bait and switches, failure to deliver, etc. If the complaints are all by whiners (e.g. “It took too long!”, “It didn’t look like the picture!”), the problem is likely the complainer, not the company. That’s been true of sites where I’ve bought online, though YMMV. Complaint sites can also provide forms of resolution (e.g. CEO phone numbers) if you want to skip those at the bottom should problems arise.

    I also try to look for reviewers who share the same tastes I have or hold the same views. For an offline example, I read Roger Ebert’s movie reviews, no others. Most of the time, he and I agree on which movies are good or bad, though not always.

  9. left0ver1under says

    For book reviews, search for online reviews from newspapers. They are generally more honest and are more professionally written than commercial sites like amazon. That usually means only recent books can be found, but you might find old reviews from years or decades ago if papers put their old editions online.

    Failing that, I try to read a large number of personal websites of people who write about the book. From their sites one can figure out what sort of person they are and whether the person has an axe to grind (e.g. an atheist or creationist talking about a Dawkins book). It’s better to read an unpaid amateur than a professional shill.

  10. Tracey says

    I found this very experience with an online store for airsoft guns. A one-star rating with clear explanations followed by a batch of five-star “WOOOT Dis kumpny RAWKS!!!” ones.

  11. Tracey says

    The only way I could get resolution to a problem (item shipped was cheaper version of what I paid for, plus was BROKEN in the box) was to complain on a general complaint site. After weeks of stonewalling, the company finally responded after my complaint was visible to the world.

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